The Nativity Story — a “very serious setback”?

Variety reported yesterday that The Nativity Story is doing so-so business in North America, but virtually nothing overseas:

The $35 million New Line pic opened the weekend of Dec. 1 to an unimpressive $7.8 million at 3,083 playdates, finishing a distant fourth to the third frames of “Happy Feet” and “Casino Royale” and the soph sesh of “Deja Vu.” . . .

Since then, however, “Nativity” has salvaged its performance with decent holdover numbers. The second frame saw a decline of 27% to $5.7 million, followed by a drop of only 19% to $4.7 million in its third, even though the film’s screen count dropped by more than 500. In both cases, the hold was the best for a pic in the top 10.

And weekday biz has surged this week with $2.5 million in three days via gains of 36%, 41% and 52%, lifting the domestic cume to $25.6 million as of Wednesday. With Christmas on Monday, this weekend’s likely to see enough of an upward bump to propel “The Nativity Story” to about $40 million by the end of its Stateside run, particularly with viewers from group sales still waiting to see the pic.

Oversees, it’s been a different story, with foreign grosses totaling a meager $5.7 million as of Wednesday. As is typical of its financing strategy, New Line sold off the foreign territories to an array of distribs — none of whom are seeing anything but dreary results, even from heavily Catholic markets. . . .

The film’s underwhelming box-office performance is a “serious setback”, according to “Dr.” Ted Baehr at Baehr, who often releases surveys asserting that films with “Christian” values outperform “anti-Christian” films, now raises the alarm and says that studios will go back to making low-cost, high-profit R-rated movies like Borat and Jackass: Number Two, now that The Nativity Story has turned out to be a flop.

Other conservatives might disagree with Baehr, though. Victor Morton, a Catholic who dubs himself the ‘Rightwing film geek‘, called the film “a rote Christmas pageant so lifeless, so lacking in dramatic juice” and said it “has all the faults of ‘Contemporary Christian Cinema (Music)’ — and without the excuses.” In other words, if this film had been a hit, and had spawned imitators, it might have been a “serious setback” in another sort of way.

Still, it will be interesting to see what lessons New Line and other studios take from this experience. Already, the Hollywood Reporter, via Reuters, reports that New Line has given up on the awards campaigns that are typical for this time of year, and is promoting its tentpole for the next holiday season — a little flick called The Golden Compass, which happens to be the first installment of a fantasy trilogy that celebrates the death of God.

Matt Page at the Bible Films Blog has some comments on this, too, and he links to a handful of scholarly interpretations of the film, including those by Mark Goodacre, Scot McKnight and Ben Witherington III; I am also aware of one by Paul V.M. Flesher. I haven’t had time to read any of these commentaries in-depth, yet, but I hope to soon — while the movie still has some currency!

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  • Thanks for posting this Peter. That’s an interesting quote for Baehr. I think the failure of Christians to get out and see this film makes his position pretty much untenable. Sure the film wasn’t that great, but that doesn’t really explain either the poor opening weekend, or the slow drop off subsequently. The reality is that church leaders haven’t got behind this one in the way they did with the Passion, which knocks the legs out from under Baehr’s stance that Christians should not be ignored by Hollwood who should be making more family / Christian friendly films.


  • What do you make of his argument that New Line should have been promoting the film to churches 9 to 12 months in advance? Of course, to some extent, that would have been difficult, since they only started casting the film — let alone shooting it — 9 months before its release date! But it seemed to me that the studio did go out of its way to court the religious media right from the beginning.

    The key element missing, I think, was controversy. Controversy worked wonders for The Passion of the Christ, The Da Vinci Code, and even Facing the Giants; apart from the fact that everybody wants to know what they’re talking about when they join the water-cooler conversations, it may be that Christians are more motivated to see a film when they sense that it is “under attack” in some way, and they believe they can defend it by “voting with their dollars”, or some such thing. So the makers of The Nativity Story, by openly touting how inclusive and universal and non-offensive their film was, may have been shooting themselves in the foot.

  • What do you make of his argument that New Line should have been promoting the film to churches 9 to 12 months in advance?
    Clutching at straws? I’d imagine that very few church leaders had any interest in planning Christmas events in March. Seems more likely Baehr is trying to find someone to blame rather than come to terms with the fact his core theory is flawed.

    The key element missing, I think, was controversy.
    That AND star power in my book. There have been plenty of controversial Jesus films in the past, but it was because this film was being made by a megatar (who also has a best director Oscar) that really got Christians interested on the one hand and meant that stories about the controversy would sell papers on the other. And then those two elements just bounced off each other until ultimately, and bizarrely, in some circles approval for the film became a test of whether you were “in” or “out”.


  • Thanks for the link, Mr. Chattaway.

    I agree with Mr. Page’s description of the dynamic that made THE PASSION such an enormous hit — he describes it perfectly IMHO — the way that star power and controversy “bounced off” one another. And that’s why seeing the film became a way to “vote with your dollars”

    That said, I do think THE NATIVITY STORY being a bad movie did contribute to its failure. Controversy, star power, courting pastors and “voting with your dollars” can only put seats in the seats the first week or so (and sometimes not even that in the Internet era of pre-release buzz). THE PASSION had legs because it was a great film that found its audience — Christians who saw it HAD to tell each other who great Mel art. Even those Christians who like THE NATIVITY STORY have tended to be more restrained in their praise.

  • Anonymous

    Whatever you think of the movie, Oscar Issac deserves the Oscar for best actor. His incarnation of Joseph, with next to nothing to guide him,is the the manifestation of genius – perfect art.

  • Since when has low quality ever stopped Christians from supporting something? Seriously.

  • Since when has low quality ever stopped Christians from supporting something? Seriously.

    Well, I would say (in fact I did say on my site) that THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST changed the stakes, at least for movies.

    What Gibson did was create the “big-budget Christian film.” Sure, enough Christians will support crap to create a small “alternative” subculture (witness the “success” of FACING THE GIANTS). But not enough to support a big-budget A-list film like THE NATIVITY STORY.

  • Maybe it wasn’t such a huge success as it was the nativity. I mean it sounds interesting to me, but I likely won’t see it…it just doesn’t seem very interesting to me. Mind you, I don’t go to a lot of movies, but just because I believe something doesn’t obligate me to go to a movie based on my beliefs. I never got to see the Passion either. I’ve just never felt the need to see either of them.